No message in the event

The Washington Post takes a look at how atheist parents try to comfort their children after (our all-too-frequent) mass shootings.

As so many millions of Americans turn to clergy and prayers to help their
children sort out the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, parents like Drizin
do not. They don’t agonize over interpreting God’s will or message in the event.
They don’t seek to explain what kind of God allows suffering, and they don’t
fudge it when children ask what happens to people who die, be they Grandma or
the young victims of Newtown.

And that’s not all bad. God and heaven seem like quick and ready comfort to many people, and no doubt that’s how it works for many, but…

…they bring uncomforting problems with them, especially the what kind of god question. It’s the difference between one malevolent person, and a malevolent god who runs everything. Which is more frightening?

The Post talks to Jamila Bey.

Atheist parents describe talking about death with their children in a straightforward way, without anxiety.

“We are a science-based family. When we don’t know the answer, we say, ‘We don’t know.’ We don’t say ‘Jesus did it,’” said Jamila Bey, a 36-year-old D.C. radio host who attended Catholic churches and schools through college. Her son is 4.

Bey’s son was too young to hear about the Newtown shootings, but she said she was confronted unexpectedly with the topic of death a few months ago when he saw an episode of “Babar” in which a hunter shoots and kills the fictional elephant’s mother.

“He said, ‘Little boys shouldn’t be without their mommies, is she ever coming back?’ ”

I had to explain, ‘Honey, life is very long, but sometimes bad things happen. Not often and they hurt.’

“I said, ‘When people die, it’s just like before they were ever born. They’re not scared, they’re not hungry, they’re not cold. But the people left behind miss them.’ I didn’t fill him with ideas of celestial kingdoms where you get wings and shit.”

Ohh, I remember finding the shooting of Babar’s mother upsetting as a child. Kind of permanently upsetting – I loved the book and read it often. It’s a poignant illustration.

When Matthieu Guibert’s mother-in-law passed away this summer, his 10-year-old son heard a pastor at the grave mention a possible afterlife.

“He said it sounded weird to him, she was gone; how would we meet her again? It’s hard to grasp for a 10-year-old. I tried to tell him, ‘When you die some people think it’s part of another life, but we don’t believe it because there is no proof. We’d rather focus on this life.’ ”

Guibert was raised Catholic in France and his wife as an evangelical in the United States, and they want the boys to be informed.

“We try to emphasize religions with an ‘s.’ We tell them we don’t believe in any of it. Nothing. None,” said the 35-year-old Germantown scientist. But he said they don’t talk too much yet to the children about atheism and “try to stay neutral.”

“As far as morality and how to behave, when it comes up I say ‘You don’t have to have religion to know right from wrong.’ The golden rule is what we go by,” said Guibert, who attends a monthly parent meet-up connected with the pro-secular Center for Inquiry.

Not only do you not have to have religion to be good, but religion can (and does) very often get it wrong.


  1. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Let us endeavor to see things as they are, and then enquire whether we ought to complain. Whether to see life as it is, will give us much consolation, I know not; but the consolation which is drawn from truth if any there be, is solid and durable: that which may be derived from errour, must be, like its original, fallacious and fugitive.

  2. Rodney Nelson says

    “We are a science-based family. When we don’t know the answer, we say, ‘We don’t know.’ We don’t say ‘Jesus did it,’”

    That’s what’s wrong with religion. “God did it” explains nothing, especially when the god can overturn causality and logic on a whim. “We don’t know” is honest, “Jesus did it” is not.

  3. says


    When my grandaughter was not much more than 3, our rabbit died. She loved the rabbit, and he spent a lot of time running around the garden. I sat down with her, told her Buster had died and I had put him in a hole in the ground.

    She told other people how he was dead and in a hole in the ground and they seemed shocked that one so young could know the truth and be totally at ease with it.

    About a year later her catholic grandfather died. When I arrived at the church for his funeral, she met me in the foyer and said “Pop, I want to show you grandad”. She took me by the hand, led me in to the church and up to the coffin and said “Grandad’s in there”. I doubt the Catholics would have approved of her realism, but I was pleased that she was able to deal with death without myth.

    As the coffin was loaded in to the hearse after the service, she did cry, she did say she wanted see grandad and even now says she misses him. But her memory of him is not cluttered and clouded by angels, harps and clouds, simply the reality that someone she loved has gone from her life and left a gap.

    I have found that when handled with sensitivity and calm children are quite capable of accepting death for what it is.

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